Review: The Invention of Lying

Directed by: Ricky Gervais / Matthew Robinson
Written by: Ricky Gervais / Matthew Robinson
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Edward Norton, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, Rob Lowe
Released: 2009 / Genre: Comedy / Country: USA / IMDB
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray: DVD | Blu-ray DVD | Blu-ray
If you liked The Invention of Lying, check out: Groundhog Day, Delirious, The Truman Show, Bruce Almighty
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Ricky Gervais is currently fronting a show on British TV called An Idiot Abroad. In it he sends ignorant simpleton Karl Pilkington to various foreign countries in order for the culturally-challenged wretch to discover local traditions that might open his eyes beyond the safe, insular world of his cosy English living room. After witnessing The Invention of Lying, and nearly falling into the gaping plot holes littered throughout, I began to think Pilkington wasn’t the ill-conceived one after all.

Admittedly, Gervais is a great comedy writer. His stand-up is raw, original, intelligent, and relevant, much like his groundbreaking British television shows The Office and self-referentially brilliant Extras. His various comedy skits and children’s books are also funny and memorable. And the success has brought him the attention of Hollywood – quite rightly, he deserves it. I liked his cameos in Night at the Museum and Stardust, and thought his Hollywood feature-film debut Ghost Town was amiable if largely unoriginal fun. And now we get The Invention of Lying, a film where Hollywood has given its new English comedy star all the money he needs and said: “Go deliver!” But Gervais, who writes and directs alongside first-time writer-director Matthew Robinson, as well as stars in the film, looks lost amidst a bottomless plot that obviously seemed like a good idea at the time. Sadly, after 20 minutes I realised Pilkington wasn’t the only idiot abroad.

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Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter, living in a world where nobody lies. His films are simply historical re-enactments dictated to the audience in a straight-forward, lecture-style manner. On a date with the beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner), she bluntly tells him she is not attracted to him, that their date will not end with a kiss let alone sex, and that he is neither financially or socially successful enough for her to consider dating him. The next day Bellison is fired from his job, so he goes to withdraw the last of his money from the bank in order to move out of his apartment. The bank teller explains the system is down and that he will have to tell her how much money he has so that she can withdraw it. For some unexplainable reason Mark is the first person in the long history of this alternate reality to be presented with such a situation. With only $300 in his account and needing $800 to pay his rent, he tells the world’s first lie. And it works. Bellison, now armed with the ability to lie freely and the $800 he needed to keep his apartment, begins to use this new found skill to his advantage. He gets his job back at the film company because he can now concoct interesting and adventurous historical events that everyone thinks are real. The trick even works as a way to bed women, telling one business lady the world is going to end unless they have sex immediately. Of course, she believes this and they head to a hotel room. Things get complicated when Mark’s mother dies. At her death bed he tells her not to worry, that she will go to a better place, and that all her loved ones will be there. The nursing staff, overhearing this, beg Mark to explain more. Thus, he invents God, and becomes a media sensation.

The film does begin in true Gervais fashion – perfectly timed gag followed by that inherent human awkwardness that forms when conversations get unforgettable. He does it so well. But within a minute you’re wondering if this gag has already run its course. Gervais takes Jennifer Garner out on a date. In a world where no one tells lies she’s more than happy to greet him at her apartment door with the words – “I was just masturbating” – to which he replies: “That makes me think of your vagina.” But then as the hot date disappears upstairs for more fondling, Gervais can be heard lamenting his choice of restaurant, that he isn’t financially successful to be dating this girl, that he thinks he might get fired tomorrow. I was left wondering why, in a world where people only told the truth, human inhibition was dormant. Because you can’t tell lies means, in this world, you explain in great detail your inadequacies. I wasn’t sure I could buy that. Anyway, I thought, perhaps human feeling is different in this godless world. But no, Gervais’ character isn’t amused by his date’s endless listing of his physical and social failings, he is depressed when he loses his job, and a neighbour tells him he’s trying to kill himself because he has no friends. So people do having feelings in this world; why then does each character put everyone else to the sword, they must know the consequences? Does this therefore mean that without our ability to lie the human race becomes populated by insensitive arseholes?

I couldn’t grasp the concept of this alternate dimension. That is partly due to Gervais’ inability to fully realise this new world for an audience coming into it cold. The premise is a perfect set-up for a long production line of comedy sketches and one-liners. Yet, when the film asks you to partake in human drama, as it inevitably does, it is as awkward as Gervais’ trademark comedy. Much like missing the beginning of someone telling a joke but overhearing the punch line and listening to the ensuing laughter wondering what all the fuss is about, The Invention of Lying is always one-step ahead of the audience, and never lets you catch up. The film is built on such flimsy logic that if you pulled back the curtain, you’d see a Gervais-looking Wizard of Oz frantically building a Jenga set, the tower teetering on destruction. One false move and the whole thing will crash down.

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And that’s the film’s major flaw. Not only do Gervais and Robinson fail to sell their alternate dimension to the audience, they even fail to fulfil its potential. Gervais’ transformation from office nobody to Jesus is self-aggrandizement of the highest order. That he lines up a bevy of Hollywood stars – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Edward Norton, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, Rob Lowe – for cameos and bit-parts is great if you’re going to utilise their skills to make a better movie. But they’re all largely wasted apart from Lowe. When The Office co-writer/co-director, star of Extras, and friend of Gervais, Stephen Merchant turns up alongside fellow Extras actor Shaun Williamson, The Invention of Lying proves itself to be a self-congratulating love-in amongst rich and famous friends.

The film isn’t half as funny as it should be, or half as intelligent as it thinks it is. Behind the façade of the high-concept premise there’s very little originality (its likeness to 1991’s Delirious starring John Candy should not go unnoticed), and the binding knots of a romantic sub-plot are constantly giving way under the weight of the artificial human drama. Ricky Gervais can and will do better.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews here

the invention of lying, 1 star out of 5,

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    The romantic subplot really makes the film unfurl.

  2. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Great review, Dan. I watched this last night with the wife (just finishing my review of it… consider this linked!) and I admit that I was disappointed. Like you said, it starts with a bang and just disintegrates too quickly to ever recover.

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